Free dental clinic to assist 2,000 residents as critics lambast state health care gap
by Chris O’Neal
If you notice a cavalry of dentists at the Ventura County Fairgrounds this weekend, try to imagine the number of fillings, exams and other procedures being performed inside.
The California Dental Association’s CDA Cares Dental Event will provide oral health care at no charge and no ID requirement to approximately 2,000 patients, first come, first serve, many of whom are helpless without dental insurance or the funds to afford regular checkups.
Dr. Mark Lisagor, chair of the CDA Cares Ventura branch and a retired pediatric dentist, will be one of the volunteers.
“We’ll see over 2,000 patients who badly need dental care and just have no access to care for a variety of reasons,” said Lisagor. “We see people from all walks of life, folks with insurance who are just getting by or raising a family. Times are tough and some people don’t have the money for copays and deductibles.”
The CDA Care free clinic began in 2012, taking place twice a year in various places throughout California. Since then, over 12,000 volunteers have assisted in providing health care to patients at no charge, an estimated $13.1 million worth of services to over 16,000 patients. This will be the first clinic in 2016, and between 1,500 to 2,000 health care professionals and volunteers from the community will be on hand, donating $200,000 worth of in-kind services with $200,000 already raised in funds for the event.
The event itself shines a light on a smoldering issue statewide: a lack of access to dental health care. Oftentimes, dental insurance is separate from health insurance. Unlike medical coverage, dental insurance is not required for adults under the Affordable Care Act, though it is for children.
Medicaid offers limited dental benefits as well, but CDA Cares advocates are pressing for a separate program — Denti-Cal — to be revamped, where they say that 10 million residents experience barriers to dental care even with Denti-Cal coverage.
“Our medical system is badly broken and in need of repair; it’s terribly underfunded and dysfunctional,” said Lisagor. “That’s why so many of these people can’t get care and rely on things like this . . .. This is a Band-Aid that we apply.”
Lisagor estimates that over 2,500 permanent teeth will be removed over the weekend and people will wait overnight to receive care, though he adds that it’s possible that not everyone will be seen.
For children in Ventura County, starting early on oral hygiene can mean the difference between saving permanent teeth and spending thousands on procedures in the future.
According to the Ventura County Oral Health Collaborative, a program of United Way of Ventura County in partnership with Public Health Ventura County, First Five Ventura and the Santa Barbara Ventura County Dental Care Society, among others, 37 percent of children seen by the Collaborative by age 5 have never been to a dentist, and near to 18,000 Ventura County kids under the age of 18 have never seen a dentist either, with 9,000 of them coming from families who are unable to afford the visits.
Twenty-four percent of children in the state have never seen a dentist, comparatively, and, according to the U.S. Surgeon General, the No. 1 children’s health care issue is dental disease of some nature.
Ventura County is the largest county in the state without a countywide dental health clinic, according to the Collaborative. To compound matters, California’s Medicaid reimbursement rate for children’s dental exams is among the lowest in the nation at $15 per visit, tying Florida.
Susan Englund, vice president of community impact at the United Way of Ventura County, says that one of the largest obstacles facing county children is the low number of dentists who accept Denti-Cal. In Ventura County, 53,000 kids are enrolled in Denti-Cal, but only 86 dentists accept it, meaning each dentist is on average responsible for 617 kids.
For Englund, this means getting parents to take dental matters seriously, and promoting healthy habits at home, is a top priority.
“It is really important to catch poor behavior and habits early on. Educating parents is extremely important,” said Englund. United Way will offer an interactive curriculum beginning April 19 called “Brush Well, Drink Well, Eat Well, Stay Well,” focused on pregnant women and parents of children aged 0 to 5 years of age on the importance of oral hygiene.
Another barrier preventing proper dental care for California residents is the Denti-Cal program itself.
On April 1, the Little Hoover Commission, an independent state oversight committee, released a report called “Fixing Denti-Cal.” Pedro Nava, chair and former California Assemblyman, wrote in a letter addressed to Governor Brown and Members of the California Legislature that “Californians, collectively, have turned a blind eye to containing a health emergency that is entirely preventable, yet sends too many people to expensive emergency rooms and costs school districts and employers millions of dollars in absences.” Up to $31 million is lost in reimbursements to schools due to absences caused by dental emergencies annually, according to the United Way.
The commission was not gentle on Denti-Cal, claiming that “the statistics portray a vicious circle of dysfunction” for a program that has a “thicket of rules” and “outdated processes,” leading the program to be “baffling, frustrating and, ultimately, often harmful to beneficiaries.”
Englund says that adding more dentists to the Denti-Cal network is greatly needed, but difficult.
“It’s not terribly incentivized, we have to raise the rates,” said Englund, noting that Denti-Cal covers roughly one-third of the cost of treatment. The commission in its report set several recommendations, including having a target of 66 percent of Denti-Cal children making annual dental visits, simplification of the health care provider enrollment forms and simplification the process of authorization, to name a few.
“It’s not easily fixable and it’s not going to happen overnight. In the meantime, we really have to focus on the approach of educating parents and doing preventative things, such as fluoride treatments, sealants, assessments and all of the things that catch problems,” said Englund, who will be a volunteer on Sunday at the CDA Cares event.
For this weekend’s event, Lisagor says that a large aspect will be to connect patients with providers and programs in the county that can offer regular care. Dental care, he says, can strongly affect a person’s life.
“[Patient’s] self esteem is restored, they can go out and get a job,” said Lisagor on restoring teeth and providing dentures for those in need. “They will be walking in with no teeth in their mouth and walk out with full dentures and a smile; it becomes life changing for them.”
The CDA Cares Dental Event will take place this Saturday, April 16, and Sunday, April 17, beginning at 5:30 a.m. daily at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, 10 W. Harbor Blvd., Ventura. For more information, call 877-516-8854.
For more information on the United Way of Ventura County’s “Brush Well, Drink Well, Eat Well, Stay Well,” visit www.vcunitedway.org.